The Age of Consent Debate: European court's gay sex ruling could embarrass Tories

THE GOVERNMENT faces the prospect of an adverse ruling from the European Court of Human Rights coinciding with the next election if the age of consent is not equalised in the forthcoming Commons free vote.

The go-ahead for a complaint by three British men to the Strasbourg court has been given by the European Commission of Human Rights under articles 8 and 14 of the human rights convention, which guarantee privacy and freedom from discrimination.

The time-lag between a commission ruling that a complaint is admissible and a contested hearing before the court means that the decision would be likely to be handed down in the run-up to the next election. The Government has until 29 March to make representations.

The development could encourage more MPs to support Edwina Currie's Criminal Justice Bill amendment, which would equalise the age of consent for gays and heterosexuals at 16.

The Strasbourg complaints have been brought by Ralph Wilde and Hugo Greenhalgh, both students born in 1973, and William Parry, who is several years older, with the backing of Stonewall, the moderate gay rights organisation. All three have suffered homophobic attacks.

A radio discussion in which Mr Greenhalgh spoke of his relationship with Mr Parry prompted a member of the public to write to the Director of Public Prosecutions asking for criminal charges to be brought. The police later asked to be provided with tape of the programme and subsequently interviewed the two men.

The commission has asked the Government: 'Can the differences in the ages of consent for private homosexual relationships still be seen as compatible with articles 8 and 14 of the Convention?'

About 270 MPs are already committed to a common age of consent, including around 30 Conservatives. While most of the Labour Party is committed to the change, about 35 are still considering voting for an amendment lowering the age for homosexuals from 21 to 18.

It has emerged that Dame Angela Rumbold, a Conservative party vice-chairman, is likely to vote for a common age. Conservatives likely to support 18 include Hartley Booth (Finchley), James Couchman (Gillingham), Keith Hampson (Leeds North-West), and Peter Luff (Worcester).

Campaigners for change have been assured that Mrs Currie's amendment will be taken first, increasing its chances of success. The final result may well turn on how many supporters of the 18 option abstain on the first vote rather than oppose it.

Anthony Pinching, Professor of Immunology at Bart's hospital, London, told a Commons meeting on health that doctors were faced with a new epidemic of HIV infection because young gay men were not part of a 'legal' community.

'The fact that their sexual activity is illegal is a major constraint on the development of coherent peer pressure about safe sex,' he said.

Dr Michael Forth, consultant psychiatrist at Royal Liverpool University Hospital, said clinical work with students showed that many gays in their late teens were at risk from depression and learning difficulties through trying to conform with the law.

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